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Kurt Kuhlmann

HST 261



Book Review:  Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976.

On War is Carl von Clausewitz's attempt to reach an understanding of the nature of war itself.  Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who witnessed the destruction of the old European order by the French armies under Napoleon, and On War was his attempt to make sense out of the rise and fall of Napoleonic France.  Clausewitz died before he could put the book into a finished state, and while it is certainly far more than a "shapeless mass of ideas" (p. 70), it does lack a unifying idea to tie all the ideas together.  This may explain its reputation of being difficult to understand, because Clausewitz's writing is on the whole extremely clear and straightforward.

His most important insight was undoubtedly the famous line: "War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means."  This is not a true thesis, however.  A large portion of the book concerns strictly military aspects of war, such as the distinction between strategy and tactics, the relative strength of attack versus defense, and his concept of "friction" in war.  Clausewitz's background in the Prussian military reform movement may have helped to shape his distincly undogmatic approach to war.  One of his most insightful chapters is on "people's wars," which he accepts as a simple "broadening and intensification of the fermentation process known as war," (p. 479) and then continues with his analysis (which holds up surprisingly well, even though Clausewitz had only the Spanish and Russian examples with which to work).

Another key idea is that the total defeat of the enemy is the essence of war.  Clausewitz has often been cited as some kind of "apostle of total war," and Liddell Hart even blamed him for the carnage of World War I.  This view is based on a complete misunderstanding of Clausewitz's point.  Clausewitz makes very clear that the "absolute" nature of war is an ideal state, which is approached only rarely in reality.  He links this concept with the subordination of war to policy to produce the theory that war reaches its most "pure" form only when policy itself is extremely ambitious and vigorous, such as in the wars following the French Revolution.  Nowhere does he imply that the total defeat of the enemy should be the only proper goal of war -- the proper goal of war is to carry out policy, which can be more or less ambitious.  This is what will determine the character of the war.

As time has passed, Clausewitz's ideas have only been confirmed by experience.  The "total wars" of the twentieth century cannot be blamed on Clausewitz's teachings.  Rather, they demonstrate his insight into the true nature of war, that as political goals for war grow more ambitious, so war will come closer to its essence of unrestrained violence.  Nuclear weapons provide an even greater confirmation: they have so far only been used twice because there is no conceivable political goal they can achieve short of the complete destruction of the enemy, but risking complete destruction in turn.  This is perfectly in keeping with one factor which Clausewitz saw as tending to restrain war in the eighteenth century -- no European power was willing to risk completely losing its army, so battle was avoided by all sides: "Safe from the threat of extremes, it was no longer necessary to go to extremes." (p. 590)  While this provides some hope that nuclear weapons can be similarly controlled by mutual abstention, Clausewitz also provides an appropriate caution.  Speculating on whether a return to the limited war of the eighteenth century was possible, he wrote: "The reader will agree with us when we say that once barriers--which in a sense consist only in man's ignorance of what is possible--are torn down, they are not so easily set up again." (p. 593)

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